More than a million Rohingya refugees inhabit the squalid and highly congested settlements of the southernmost district of Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazaar. With dependence on external humanitarian assistance mounting every passing day, the lives of these “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals,” as Bangladesh officially defines these refugees, remain perpetually uncertain. Many of them, earning a decent livelihood back home, have been forced to seek succour in a foreign land, escaping targeted violence and torture by the Myanmar military.
While violence hasn’t broken out between different groups in the refugee population and radicalization hasn’t cropped up as an evident threat, tensions simmer across the camps. In such a situation, to maintain peace and prevent conflict demands a grassroots, bottom-up perspective. As has been conceded in such highly volatile conflict hotspots, building peace from the ground level mitigates conflict over the long term. The “human needs approach” to conflict best captures the grassroots scenario — here, universal needs take priority over a top-down modus operandi for conflict prevention. Meeting the basic needs of the subject population is imperative if coexistence is to be sustained in an environment such as Cox’s Bazaar, where scant resources are under huge strain.
Universal needs comprise not only food, water, and shelter but also the immediate protection and environmental needs, which must be met to contain insecurity. In such a context, as well as its degree, the distribution of insecurity between different cultural or ethnic groups in the refugee community has widespread repercussions. Therefore, the focus has to be on relative, and not just absolute deprivation, as this can fuel grievances, precipitating violent behaviour. Effective measures to assimilate the incoming population would adequately contribute to sustainable livelihood goals.
In the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, the different factions span from the registered refugees, who reached Bangladesh before the 2017 influx, and have refugee status in the country, in comparison to the unregistered refugees who crossed the border in 2017. The surrounding host community also figures as one of the poorest in the country. Hence, tension between, and among these three groups, has been a recurring threat. On to this dry tinder can come the spark of radicalization by various extremists group, whether Bangladeshi or radical groups from Myanmar. As the situation is ripe for radical groups to prosper, across the length and breadth of the camps, conflict mitigation is even more at a premium. With the majority of the refugee population yet to be formally recognized by the government, as tension rises, the challenges of accommodating the three groups are enormous.
The focus must be on assuaging the basic needs — that has long been the priority of the humanitarian agencies. For instance, food assistance to the larger audience, as ensured by the World Food Program, is a step towards fulfilling universal needs which, if left unmet, could otherwise foment a pernicious conflict. “Human security,” a concept developed by Mary Kaldor, captures the focus on peace for individuals and communities at grassroots level, rather than conceiving security as defense of the state and its institutions. Conflict prevention in this context includes efforts to balance the demands of competing factions through a multilateral approach, where universal human rights take precedence.
It is in this context that Cox’s Bazaar is symptomatic of a unique scenario, where the confluence of different cultures, religion, and identities necessitates a strategy that caters to the needs of the larger population. Besides food assistance, establishing a medium for communication amongst the different factions is key to accentuating bonhomie — ground level mediation involves participation of those at the margins. As noted in countries like Somalia, local peace conferences brought together elders of various sub-clans, solidifying peace agreements.
This was the foundational block to institutionalizing the political framework that catered to the larger mass, and in turn, aided establishment of a framework for peace. In this process, public health or awareness programs play a crucial role. Integration that includes training at the community level in recovering from trauma and dealing with existing prejudices contributes profoundly to sustainable peace. Cox’s Bazaar, therefore at this juncture, behoves substantial action at the margins involving varied populations. At every level, peaceful accommodation of communities can only be ensured by involvement of the grassroot actors; the approach of human security is of utmost relevance.
Furthermore, focusing on the youth is pre-eminent, not just as a contingency measure against pervasive threat of radicalization, but also to leverage their potential and enhance self-reliance of the population. At the multilateral decision-making level, giving adequate focus on establishing mechanisms or systems to upkeep peace in the ground level is a prerequisite to building on a proactive strategy for steadfast integration of the population, and ensuring a sustainable future.